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This winter warrior made the gravitational waves discovery possible

Engineer Steffen Richter wintered in the South Pole to keep the BICEP2 telescope running

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2:30pm, March 28, 2014

FROZEN DELIVERY  As the engineer in charge of maintaining the BICEP2 telescope, Steffen Richter made weekly trips to fill the telescope with helium to cool it to nearly absolute zero.

Magazine issue: Vol. 185 No. 8, May 3, 2014
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The wind chill is −80° Celsius when Steffen Richter, donning a red parka, hops on a snowmobile and heads to work. Lighting his path are the stars, a sliver of moon and the faint green glow of the aurora australis, the southern lights.

It’s the kind of day that might make him miss home — but Boston is nearly 15,000 kilometers away, and no pilot would dare fly anywhere near Richter’s location for months. Plus, the Harvard engineer has a job to do. Hitched to Richter’s snowmobile is a vat of liquid helium, the lifeblood of a telescope built at the far end of the world to detect and dissect the universe’s oldest light.

On March 17, several scientists sat in a climate-controlled auditorium at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics to announce that their South Pole telescope, BICEP2, had detected ripples in spacetime dating back to a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang (SN: 4/5/14, p. 6). It’s a potentially Nobel Prize–winning discovery, and it could not have been made without Richter. His daily maintenance checks and semiweekly helium deliveries during three consecutive Antarctic winters allowed BICEP2 to remain fixated on exposing the earliest moments of the universe.

Spending a winter at the planet’s southernmost point is the ultimate commitment. The Amundsen–Scott research station there is inaccessible by air for nearly nine months of the year, eliminating any opportunity for escape. Once the sun dips below the horizon in March, it doesn’t return until September, leaving behind a frigid, dry environment that’s ideal for astronomical observation but abysmal for human habitation.

That doesn’t bother Richter, an adventurer whose passions include riding motorbikes in remote parts of the world. In his nine winters at the polar station (which put him in a tie for the most spent there), he has served as the only line of engineering defense for several multimillion-dollar experiments. Two of the biggest are BICEP and IceCube, which recently detected neutrinos from beyond the solar system (SN: 12/28/13, p. 6). Every day, he trekked out in temperatures averaging 58 degrees Celsius below zero to inspect the instruments and their data.

BICEP2, which Richter oversaw for the winters of 2010 through 2012, required extra attention. Even in the pole’s frigid temperatures, the telescope needed to be kept much colder to detect radiation emitted just after the Big Bang, which hovers just a few degrees above absolute zero. Missing one delivery of liquid helium coolant could cripple the telescope for weeks. “You have to do it no matter what the weather is,” he says. “Running out of liquid helium is not an option.”

The rest of his time, he was bonding with the roughly 50 scientists, doctors, cooks, electricians, plumbers and others operating the research station. They ate together, shared stories and performed feats possible only during polar winters: Richter is a proud member of the 300 Club, having run outside naked in -100 degree Fahrenheit temperatures after roasting in a 200-degree sauna.

He plans to return to the South Pole later this year to install upgrades for the new and improved BICEP3 telescope. But he won’t spend the winter — the team found another willing victim to take his place. “I have high confidence in him,” Richter says of his stand-in. “Hopefully he’ll be great so that I won’t have to do it every year.”

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